Botham's Test and England's triumph: Silver jubilee of the birth of the legend of Beefy

A quarter of a century ago England were careering to defeat in the Ashes Test at Headingley, before one of cricket's most elemental performances intervened. Derek Hodgson recalls one of sport's great comebacks

It is 25 years since what was regarded, until last summer, as the greatest Test match ever played took place at Headingley. The dates do not quite correspond: today England are there to play the third Test of a series against Pakistan; then England were meeting Australia in the third of a six-match rubber. Today we may be about to resume a hot spell after the hottest month in history. Then it was a chilly, cloudy passage in late July. Global warming, in 1981, was the stuff of science fiction.

Headingley itself has changed immensely, with only the old football stand and the red-brick corner pavilion surviving, the Winter Shed on Kirkstall Lane having been virtually built over and due for demolition. Watching, and listening to film of the time, the first impression is how much quieter the game was; very little from the PA, no music unless a marching band paraded before the start, measured tones from the commentators. The crowd then were spectators, not the participants they have become. This was before the Mexican wave, before fans got dressed up to attract the TV cameras; no Elvis Presleys, no drunken nuns, no lookalike competitions in the lunch interval, no Barmy Army.

The players, too, were more restrained in dress and manner. England sweaters were a pristine white, carrying no sponsors' logos, no names, no numbers. Australia's caps were bigger and baggier. Security was a word associated with banks and you could bring in as much booze as you could carry. Yorkshire fish and chips were still fried in beef dripping and most adults smoked cigarettes, although pipes were much favoured on cricket grounds.

Moustaches and long hair, lingering on from the previous decade, were popular. Dennis Lillee, Australia's great fast bowler, wore an Alice band. Ian Botham, England's hero, might have stepped from an Elizabethan portrait. There were other giants; indeed, England's batting order looks titanic: Graham Gooch, Geoff Boycott, Mike Gatting, David Gower, Botham; add a great fast bowler in Bob Willis and a great wicketkeeper in Bob Taylor, all led by the astute and cerebral Mike Brearley. How could Australia possibly win?

Let's put the match into context. England had returned from a disappointing and controversial tour of West Indies under Botham's captaincy. Two Tests were lost, two drawn and another, in Guyana, cancelled because England had flown in an additional fast bowler, Robin Jackman, to whom the local authority objected on the grounds of his association with South Africa, a country then outlawed from international sport because of its apartheid doctrine.

We in the press corps enjoyed "Both" (the Beefy nickname came later) as captain; he was easy-going, affable, accessible but, as the criticism mounted over England's results, his temper stretched and snapped on the flight home when, after reading of his captaincy as "infantile", he threatened to knock the block off Henry Blofeld.

So to the summer of 1981 and a defence of the Ashes with England led by a captain at odds with the media. In England's favour was the fact that injury and illness reduced Australia's options but Lillee was still supported by a brilliant swing bowler in English conditions in Terry Alderman, and a young, fiercely hostile paceman in Geoff Lawson. When Australia won the one-day series before the Tests, anticipation of a keen contest, eventually, it was to be hoped, going to England, was high. The selectors, wavering, appointed Botham on a match-by-match basis.

Then came Trent Bridge, where the sun came out on a green, damp pitch for a low-scoring match - neither side reached 200 - without a single over of spin and Australia got home by four wickets. Another sign of things to come was play on a Sunday for the first time, an experiment, the board stressed, to be repeated at Edgbaston.

England's captain, the mainspring and as important to the side as Andrew Flintoff is to today's, managed 34 runs in two innings and three wickets in 26 overs. He, not unfairly, blamed dropped catches; England put six down but, often, the light was poor and the ball wet. The media drums began to sound.

Lord's, for the second Test, provided a drier pitch and an erratic bounce but the match was drawn, Botham got a pair (and took 2 for 72) and walked back into the pavilion to almost total silence. "It was the low point of my career," he confessed. He told the chairman of selectors, Alec Bedser, he no longer wanted to continue as captain. That night I was able to winkle out, for my own paper, that Brearley, who had left the job in 1979, would be returning as captain for the third Test at Headingley. "I want Botham in my team," was his first quote the next day.

Eleven days later, Leeds: another grey start, England going in without a spinner, a decision that left Brearley short of sleep. Australia batted first and made a patient 203 for 3 on a day that lost almost an hour to bad light. Botham missed two catches at slip. England groaned. By the end of the second day Australia were 401 for 9 but Botham had taken 6 for 95 and we all agreed that, responsibility diminished, he was looking happier. Saturday plunged the country into gloom again: England all out 174, to which Botham had contributed what some thought was a reckless 50, and, following on, had lost Graham Gooch in the evening gloom.

That night, unknown to most, Ladbrokes offered 500-1 against an England win. With Sunday a rest day, many people arranged to book out of their hotels on Monday morning. By late afternoon the wisdom of that decision seemed confirmed when England were 135 for 7, 92 behind and their only viable ambition, that of avoiding an innings defeat.

Many of us in the press box were contemplating starting to write up for the next day's editions: England would be two Tests down with three to play. Most depressing was seeing this happening despite the conviction that, man for man, England were the more talented team and had, undoubtedly, a far superior captain.

The Australian end of the Headingley press box, then in a stand since demolished, was noisily cheerful. They had by then pretty well abandoned one of their traditional ploys, which was to invite a young and impressionable English writer at lunchtime (their own reports having been filed to meet Australian deadlines), to the nearest bar where the bonds of Empire would be extolled, the joys of the Old Country celebrated and enough beer consumed to have the dude returned, all but legless, to his seat to contemplate an empty notebook and a scoreboard of swimming figures.

The Aussies could jest about Boycott, 210 minutes in scoring 46. He was sixth out; Taylor went two runs later and England were left with Botham, batting like a man who saw his mission to preserve national dignity, and Graham Dilley, who batted left-handed with some confidence but with no great success. Dilley clearly felt there was no point in delaying the inevitable and smartly square cut Alderman for successive boundaries. "It's a relief to see England putting up a fight," Christopher Martin-Jenkins told BBC viewers.

Seeing the ball whack the boundary board seemed to light a competitive fire in Botham. He was not prepared to be outshone by a Kent fast bowler. He began employing that wonderful hand-eye coordination and powerful arms, wrists and shoulders to crash any ball a fraction loose.

With 41 still needed to avoid an innings defeat and four sessions left to play, Australia's captain, Kim Hughes, saw no reason to break up his attacking fields; Lillee had been bowling to five slips and a gully.

The next 80 minutes were pure mayhem as the pair added 117 runs. Botham, pacing his crease like a prowling lion, sometimes hit the ball so hard you expected it to disintegrate in mid-air, like a clay pigeon. Australian fielders seemed to be running around like headless chickens. Hughes looked shell shocked. The crowd, once sunk in gloom, erupted. As reporters frantically rang round to rebook accommodation, Dilley was followed by another suddenly transformed gladiator, Chris Old , with whom another 67 was added. At the close Botham marched proudly off, trailed by last man Willis, after as astonishing a 145 as the game has ever seen.

With a day to play England were 124 ahead with one wicket to fall, but the country saw the Test as a Dunkirk, tactical glory masking strategic defeat. But Botham was a hero again and small boys flocked into gardens and streets to re-enact the drama.

When only another five runs were added the following morning, before a thin crowd assembled to see the last rites, the Australian target was 130 and the press corps fully expected to be on the road by mid-afternoon. Brearley told his team: "They're the ones that will be nervous, not us," but at 56 for 1, an Aussie victory seemed a shoo-in.

The pitch was bumpy and Willis, who came on at the Football Stand end, first change, was told not to worry about extras but to hit the surface hard. He asked to switch to downhill, with the wind, and after Brearley had consulted with Taylor and Botham he signalled the change. Thus was history made: Willis, bowling with the fury of a forest fire, rampaged through the Australian order.

By lunch Australia were 58 for 4 and the whole country sensed a growing drama. Old bowled the emerging star Allan Border for a duck, Willis took two more wickets in quick succession before Lillee and the spinner Ray Bright counter-attacked, adding 35 in four overs. Australia were 75 for 8 but still needed only another 55 and England's quicks were tiring.

Agonisingly, Old put down two catches at slip, off Botham. "It was a good job for him," said Brearley, "that he was a Yorkshireman." With 20 needed and all England holding its breath Willis bowled the stubborn Bright middle stump and England had achieved a cricketing miracle, a match that would not be surpassed in drama and emotion until the summer of 2005. For only the second time in Test history, and for the first time in the 20th century, a team had won after following on.

I was finishing a meal at home in Didsbury when all hell was let loose. Within 10 minutes I had calls from the night news desk, the sports editor, the features editor and eventually the editor himself, who happened to be an Australian. Was it true that the Australians had backed themselves to lose? Apparently we already had a news team blockading the Aussies in their Harrogate hotel.

It took hours to track down my closest friends among the Australian journalists. They, rightly and dutifully, disclaimed all knowledge but were cagey enough for me to sense there was smoke, even if I could not locate the fire. Some time later it emerged that two of the Australian team, inveterate gamblers, had been unable to resist the temptation of odds of 500-1 against England. Few Englishmen cared.

Jubilation abounded but there was none of the near hysteria of 2005 and that England team had to wait much longer for their gongs; some are still waiting.

What happened next? In the fourth Test, in Birmingham, England were again flattened and Australia needed 142 to win. "Miracles" intoned one distinguished cricket correspondent, "do not strike twice". At 105 for 4 Australia looked set to take a 2-1 lead with one to play when Brearley, accepting that this was a spinners' pitch but that John Emburey could not do it alone, threw the ball to Botham in what was, in effect, the last roll of the dice. Botham concluded that conditions were not in his favour so he bowled faster and straighter than for some time, Australia lost five wickets for one run in 28 balls and England won by 29.

In Manchester, Botham's magnificent hitting brought him a century off 86 balls, including six sixes, for England to romp away by 103 runs to keep the Ashes by 3-1. That year, for the first time, there was a sixth Test but the Oval, in truth, was an anticlimax, a draw in which Botham still managed to take 10 wickets and pass 200 in his career.

Botham, most judges would agree, is second only to Sir Gary Sobers in the pantheon of great all-rounders. Comparisons with Flintoff are inconclusive in that Freddie is only in mid-career, but as of now it can be said that Botham was a better bat defensively and a cleaner hitter. His bowling was not as hostile, Freddie being faster with a much sharper bounce. Botham, too, had this inexplicable knack of being able to dismiss top-class batsmen with seemingly innocent deliveries.

I once hailed him as "the man with the golden arm". An England team-mate confided: "A good line that. But you know what we call him in the dressing-room? 'Golden Bollocks'."

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